5 big ideas for education innovation in 2018

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Jan 10, 2018

Last year saw a flurry of activity in support of personalized learning, new school designs, and new approaches to K-12 education policy. Looking ahead, education innovators have their work cut out for them in 2018. Some of this work requires asking hard questions. Some requires acknowledging that there’s an elephant in the room. And some requires looking beyond our current conversation to where the next waves of innovation stand to emerge. Here are five ways I’m hoping the K-12 education innovation agenda moves forward in 2018:

(1) Unpack “just-in-time supports.”

One of the core elements of a high quality competency-based model is students receiving just-in-time supports. These same supports seem to be implied when advocates of personalized learning call for tailored learning experiences and pathways that resemble those of high-touch tutoring models. Yet we often lack a clear, systematic way to talk about what those supports are and aren’t. What does learning science tell us about the best approaches? In which instances should these supports result from students seeking out help themselves? And when should educators scaffold them in? Put broadly, how can we infuse the notion of “just-in-time supports” with an understanding of what works, for which students, in which circumstances? I worry that without getting deep into these instructional innovations and beginning to categorize them in clear ways, structural innovations to rethink time and unlock personalized, competency-based progressions will risk falling flat. This year I’ll be keeping an eye on efforts like TLA’s Practices portfolio and Digital Promise’s Learner Positioning Systems for clearer answers.

(2) Stop debating technology, start debating constructivism and behaviorism.

The ever-simmering edtech debate is starting to boil over. Commentators are stuck arguing whether tech is good or bad, whether personalized learning is synonymous with robot teachers or high-touch teaching, whether technology is under-researched or offers a high payoff. I worry that these debates draw false dichotomies. They risk entrenching different camps in their feelings about the form a tool takes rather than its function. I suspect that the deeper tension undergirding these debates may have less to do with technology itself and more to do with competing behaviorist and constructivist philosophies. I’m hoping that mainstream edtech conversations dedicate more time to examining these competing pedagogical philosophies—and how edtech tools do or don’t support each—in 2018. This year I’ll keep following thinkers like Larry Cuban who have become more vocal about this distinction.

(3) Revisit accountability. And then revisit it again.

Unpacking those pedagogical tensions will inevitably require a hard look at current accountability regimes and the sorts of instructional models that high-stakes testing tends to encourage. Where does the accountability conversation stand today? State ESSA plans are turned in, which in theory makes 2018 the time to focus on implementation. But if the system stands to become more student-centered, finalized ESSA plans should mark the beginning, not the end, of R&D efforts in accountability and assessment. Where can we look to move that conversation forward? This year, the federal Innovative Assessment Pilot offers one obvious starting point for this conversation to evolve. I’ll personally keep following groups like iNACOL who are pushing this conversation forward (see their recent report on the topic). I’ll also be watching how new approaches beyond the traditional system, like ReSchool Colorado, can offer lessons around the governance implications of public-private out-of-school learning models. These new approaches may just offer the chance to truly reinvent governance and accountability from the ground up.

(4) Start talking about students’ networks. 

We’ll likely be hearing a lot about ‘networks’ this coming year. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s new K-12 education strategy hinges on networks of continuous improvement—that is, connecting groups of schools and adults to adapt and improve instruction. Although a promising approach to scaling innovations, I’d argue this commitment to networks suffers a blind spot: students. Mounting evidence suggests that whom students know can shape their aspirations and access to opportunity. Access to relationships can buffer risk, increase grades, bolster well-being, and support students to and through college. Let’s make sure that conversations and dollars dedicated to networks of adults doesn’t shortchange student networks. At the Institute we’ll be publishing a lot more on emerging tools and schools that are beginning to disrupt the boundaries of students’ inherited networks by expanding access to new connections to experts and mentors historically out of reach.

(5) Look internationally for disruptive plays in education.

Speaking of disruption, in the coming years we suspect that international players will start to have far greater sway in the U.S. education innovation conversation. China and India’s edtech markets are booming. And exciting efforts are afoot in developing countries to radically expand access to hardware and learning software. Although some of these more rudimentary technologies may pale in comparison to some of the state-of-the-art technology emerging in the U.S. market, many of these innovations abroad stand to compete on price. To track that work, I’ll be keeping an eye on efforts like Imagine Worldwide, a new nonprofit researching and investing in these models in the developing world, and our own research efforts digging into innovations in global prosperity.

These are some of the tricky questions, elephants-in-the-room, and exciting new efforts that I’ll be thinking about in the year ahead. How about you?

 

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.